by David Zakhodin
In the years following the end of the Golden Age, American tennis has steadily fallen. While the new generation of rising Europeans was outside of our control, America dropped the ball when it came to filling the shoes of Pete and Andre. Andy Roddick was a one Slam wonder who lost a lopsided head to head battle against Federer in Grand Slams. He gave us a small thrill in the dramatic 2009 Wimbledon final but faded away rather quickly afterward. James Blake and Robby Ginepri made some in-roads in a couple Grand Slams and established reputable rankings but lacked the longevity to become staples of American tennis history. I’ll cut American tennis some slack for not winning Slams since 2003 in the sense that we entered an era where four players have single handedly dominated the game for the better part of ten years. But to not have anyone ranked in the top eight or to not have a single player in the second week of a Slam is downright disgraceful for a country that has established such a rich history in the sport.
The past five years we’ve been banging our heads having to watch the unwatchable John Isner, the enigmatic Sam Querrey, the overachieving Stevie Johnson, and the underwhelming Donald Young. While Isner has hung around the top ten for a consistent stretch of his career, his lack of skill set and awkward size has put him in a position of weakness against higher ranked opponents despite his big serve and forehand. Perhaps an even bigger result of Isner’s relative success on the tour is that many American tennis players now believe they can win by playing a brand of first strike tennis that de-incentivizes them to work on their weaknesses or on their fitness.
Despite the head-scratching results of the past five years, there seems to be some enthusiasm for American tennis today as a result of up-and-coming players. Jack Sock’s rise into the top 25 is exciting, but as sexy as his forehand may be, a guy with a backhand worse than Courier’s was cannot crack the top eight and become a Grand Slam title contender. We hear about some rising junior stars coming up the ranks, but we’ll get to them later because the first thing we have to understand is that the system of player development in American tennis is broken. In order for Americans to break into the elite stratosphere of European players who are dominating the top of the rankings, we must first identify why the status quo is not good enough.
The biggest reason why America has ceased to produce players of the highest caliber is because coaches all across the country ingrain a very naïve philosophy into the minds of our young players. While all European players are taught to play long points where they have the ability to furnish both offensive and defensive patterns, American tennis is all about playing shorter points and employing what we refer to as first strike tennis. Every ounce of energy is dedicated toward finding ways to hit the ball bigger, dictating with the forehand, and finding ways to end the point faster in order to preserve energy and not have to play long points when they can be easily avoided. This is a great philosophy for players with limited all-court skills or glaring weaknesses, but do we really want future generations to be a carbon copy of the playing styles of John Isner and Sam Querrey? It is reasonable to work on maximizing strengths rather than improving weaknesses in the short term, but we can’t expect to produce Grand Slam champions who miss two backhands and two returns every other game.
Moreover, the American tennis brass fails to accept the fact that the playing style of European clay courters is superior. Because the Europeans cater their way of coaching to produce versatile players who can grind all day on clay while simultaneously adjusting to the fast speed of hard courts, it is no surprise to see European players still perform extremely well year-round whereas Americans look like fish out of water when they play on European clay courts. ESPN commentators are quick to point out that players like Isner and Querrey play better on US hard courts because they have a personal comfort playing in the States as opposed to overseas. Excuses aside, it’s admirable that USTA Player Development has put a lot of emphasis on playing more on clay courts. However, what’s the point of playing on low quality clay that hardly resembles the kind in Europe if our players don’t even know how to properly move their feet on it? Brad Gilbert talks about the “California slide” or the act of sliding after hitting a shot as opposed to sliding into the shot before hitting it as something that American players often do out of pure habit. This technique of sliding after hitting the ball not only puts the player out of position for the next shot but also shows how poorly Americans are at adapting to conditions where they cannot simply stand in one part of the court smacking forehands or hitting aces. As a result of these technical shortcomings, the clay court season simply becomes a smudge in the schedule of most American tennis players that is taken for granted by both fans and the players themselves.
Perhaps my biggest beef with the philosophy of American tennis is that our coaches try to cover up and compensate for flaws in a player’s game (such as the California slide) rather than fixing them. In recent years, increased data from the ATP and WTA has come out regarding the advanced analytics behind the game. Now, American tennis coaches (especially college coaches looking to fire up a team with a lacking talent level) love telling the story of how 70% of the points end in the first four shots. I agree that this metric is valuable for assessing the importance of making first serves and starting the point, but it completely goes against the idea that we need to learn to work the point in order to produce Grand Slam champions. These college tennis coaches feed the flawed narrative that you can be a one-dimensional player with a pathetic excuse for a backhand and still be a good player. Well, the reality is that in Europe there is no such thing as college tennis. Aside from the European players who come to play Division I college tennis in the United States for a free education, there are few European junior tennis stars who are content to finish their playing career at age 22 without having a shot at the pro tour. Instead, they establish the good philosophy and fundamentals at a young age in order to increase the potential of their players. On the flip side, American players are brainwashed into thinking that they can still succeed in spite of their technical flaws as long as they “try harder” or “hit bigger.”
The biggest proponents of the “try harder” or “hit bigger” philosophies are the college tennis coaches, predominantly at the Division I level, who feel that the energy and sheer adrenaline of playing on a big stage will bring the most out of their players. As someone who plays college tennis and has seen it live, I can affirm that the energy aspect of college tennis makes it a very thrilling activity, but it is in no way a means of preparing for a career on the pro tour. In nearly every major American sport, being a college athlete is seen as a stepping-stone to developing into a professional. However, in tennis, playing in college is analogous to putting a pair of ankle weights on a player’s development. That’s not a knock on getting an education or being a student-athlete; it’s a knock on those who have real aspirations for becoming successful on the pro tour. In spite of the present day shortcomings of college tennis, people will say that this judgment makes no sense considering the likes of Connors and McEnroe played at UCLA and Stanford, respectively, and even today’s players Steve Johnson and John Isner have been relatively successful after playing four years of Division I tennis.
Nonetheless, I say that Division I tennis has become a clown show when it comes to serving as a means of preparation for the pro tour. With the ITA’s new rules of no warm-ups, shorter sets, and matches ending at decision, it’s hard to call what goes on there as tennis. While there have been many admirable attempts to make tennis a team sport, no proposition can simulate the feeling that a tour level player experiences of traveling around the world only to end up losing nearly every week. Several weeks ago I watched the Ohio State Buckeyes play against the Texas Longhorns, and the match of the highest quality there was the match that took place between the #2 singles players of each team. The Ohio State player won the first set convincingly but lost the second after having match points on his racquet. During the first game of the third set, with all the momentum swinging in favor of the player from Texas, Ohio State clinched the dual match with a win at #4 singles. That’s it. The #2 match wasn’t even finished; the competitors shook hands and walked off the court to join their respective teams in the showers. Something tells me Roger Federer doesn’t get to walk off the court mid match after blowing match point opportunities against Novak Djokovic just to live to fight another day. Hence, as positive of an experience as college tennis can be for top American junior players, the spirit and nature of the competition fails to produce the type of player necessary to make noise atop the men’s game.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with American tennis aside from all the tangible pieces that factor into our current national incompetence in the sport is the way our media portrays it to our fans. Whether it was Patrick McEnroe declaring Donald Young as the next Roger Federer or Justin Gimelstob saying that John Isner would win a Grand Slam after he beat Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic within the span of two months in 2012, these commentators have ruined players with potential. While some of this criticism applies more to the portrayal of American women seeking to take the torch from the Williams sisters, it most definitely applies to the men as well. About a month ago, up and coming youngster Taylor Fritz (who happens to have a good backhand and not just a serve and a forehand) reached the final of the Memphis Open and put up a good fight against Kei Nishikori. The very next day, Steve Tignor of TENNIS.com wrote an article titled “Taylor Fritz calls to mind a young Pete Sampras.” Fritz, who has yet to crack the top 100 as of the release of this article, is already being compared to Pete Sampras. Are we really that desperate that we need to make up whatever outrageous comparisons come to mind just to convince ourselves that there is hope? The media sets these high expectations for teenage players with comparisons to the sport’s legends hoping to draw attention when they really underestimate the difficulties of the pro tour and stunt the players’ development.
And if the media isn’t busy talking up future prospects over social media, they’re sitting in the broadcast booth foaming at the mouth every time someone slaps a forehand winner. Listening to courtside reporters murmur how “the big fella” (Isner) has been “thumping” the ball or “redlining” on big points is like watching a situation room exchange between the President and the Joint Chiefs. Just as generals salivate and drool when the President orders military action, our tennis commentators go into their happy place when players run around their backhands to “smoke” forehands and shorten points. This sort of obsession with a flawed philosophy is what continues to prevent American tennis from re-establishing an era of dominance.
As we look beyond the philosophy of American tennis and its portrayal in the media, it is evident that changes have to be made to remove American tennis from the limbo in which it currently resides. We can’t expect to keep the status quo and wave a magic wand that will all of a sudden return us to the Golden Age we had in the 90’s with Sampras, Agassi, and Courier. The current culture and analysis of the game blinds our players to playing the right way, and until the elites of American tennis admit to their flaws in both their perception and implementation of the sport, we will not be challenging for Grand Slam titles or breaking into the next “Big Four.”